Lacking information, business leaders debate the impact of I-81 on the future of Syracuse

On the 400 block of North Salina Street’s sidewalk, perspective is everything.

On the horizon, just a glance up, looms what is perhaps the most prominent feature of the city: Interstate 81. The noise — a near constant rumble — of the nearly 100,000 cars that pass over the highway every day is inescapable.

Kathleen Di Scenna stands in the middle of all of this as she presides over her family business, Di Scenna Travel Service, at 413 N. Salina St. Pondering the possibilities for the major piece of infrastructure just beyond her business’ walls and how it could affect her neighborhood, it’s evident that what she wants is a clearer perspective.

“We want facts. We don’t want to hear a lot of drama,” Di Scenna said. “We just want to hear facts.”

Currently, though, facts and concrete information about the future of I-81 are hard to come by.

The next step for the replacement of I-81 is a draft environmental impact study, which would provide more details about the various alternatives for replacing the aging highway, but that is on hold while an independent study is conducted by a consulting firm.

In the meantime, central New York business leaders are working off of a variety of studies and coming to very different conclusions about the possible impacts of the project. Much of that division appears to stem from a fear of the unknown, as no one can be completely certain of the effects the reconstruction alternatives will have.

Wasim Ahmad | Staff Photographer

“I would say the reality is that nobody has a crystal ball,” said Robert Shibley, dean of the School of Architecture and Planning at the State University of New York at Buffalo. “But if you imagine that it’s valuable to think big, and imagine the very best for your city … then the restoration of divided neighborhoods by major highway systems is a really good idea.”

While the community grid and the viaduct rebuild appeared to be the final two options for the project, others are now back on the table. The community grid alternative would bring the elevated section of the viaduct down to street level, while the viaduct rebuild would bring the existing viaduct higher and widen it by 16 feet, according to the New York State Department of Transportation.


The upper map shows the community grid alternative, which would bring the elevated section of the viaduct to street level and would redirect through traffic around Interstate 690 and Interstate 481. The lower graph shows the viaduct rebuild alternative, which would raise and widen the current viaduct.

There’s also a fear among both people in the city and suburban communities surrounding Syracuse of repeating the same mistakes made when I-81 was first built in the 1960s.

Since then, people have said the Southside of Syracuse has been cut off from the rest of the city and its economic recovery. Business leaders on the Northside of Syracuse and the towns north of the city, including Salina, are now afraid of the same thing happening to them.

Businesses in the city and, particularly, businesses on the Northside, generally advocate for the community grid option.

Di Scenna, who has been active in I-81 discussions and is a proponent of the community grid, said, “I think the thing is, is that we’re looking for if it’s possible to go back to the drawing board for the first 81 and say ‘Can we fix this?’”

But for Mark Nicotra, the town supervisor of Salina for the last 10 years, the answer isn’t so simple. While he said he’s hopeful a common solution can be reached for the project, he wants the region to remember that the suburbs, which have lost the manufacturing jobs they relied on, are now primarily service-based, which requires people coming to them.

For the last 50 years, I-81’s current structure has shaped how the outlying areas have grown.

“Salina was built up around access, access to the highway,” Nicotra said. “You eliminate that access going forward, it will have, I feel, a huge detriment in not only the town itself but our ability to maintain the industry that we have here.”

Nicotra stressed that the region as a whole, not just the city or the county, must ultimately make the decision, unlike when the state made the final decisions on the construction of I-81 in the 1960s.

Continued accessibility was a major concern for many businesspeople from various parts of the region. Nicotra said the proximity to the interstate system is attractive to businesses, adding that the proximity is part of the reason why Southern Glazer’s Wine & Spirits built their central New York distribution hub in east Salina.

Some business owners in the city were also concerned about the accessibility of the city for their client bases in the suburbs.

Petit Jean P. Goodman, the owner of Sweet on Chocolate in Armory Square, and Jim Bright, owner of Dunk & Bright Furniture on South Salina Street, both said they were concerned about losing customers who would be dissuaded to travel to them because of a street-level portion of I-81. While the NYSDOT has not decided what exactly this alternative would look like, Bright and Goodman said they are concerned the decrease in speed might convince people to stay home.


Bright, who insisted that he was not against any particular option, said he was wary of any plan that would limit the high-speed access to his showroom, his only location, which his family has expanded over the last 90 years.

Goodman, who said he was vehemently against the boulevard, said he didn’t agree with opponents of the viaduct alternative, adding that it would be detrimental to leave the viaduct the way it is. He pointed to other cities with elevated highways, including Worcester, Massachusetts, as proof that they can be successful.

“Why can those cities do it and we can’t?” Goodman asked. “It just — it boggles my mind.”

Business leaders in villages and towns west of Syracuse are concerned about the possible effects a community grid option would have, as well, but because they believe traffic might be forced to pass through their communities if I-81 is rerouted east around the city.

Steve White, the owner of White & White Antiques, Inc. in Skaneateles, said he thinks trucks carrying garbage from New York City heading to landfills in Seneca Falls will avoid taking I-81 if they have to go more slowly or take a longer route toward DeWitt.

This is not the first time Skaneateles has dealt with huge trucks rumbling by, White said. The issue started about 27 years ago, White said, and the wear and tear of the traffic forced him to replace his sewer hookup twice.

The trucks also add to noise and air pollution in the village, which can make the area less attractive to tourists, a major source of village revenue.

White added that he doesn’t expect the state to work to prevent trucks from passing through the town. The trucks only stopped in 2010 after Seneca Meadows, the private landfill in Seneca Falls, issued a rule that their trucks could not go through the small towns, not after interference from the state.

“The Department of Transportation has been spectacularly unhelpful,” White said. “They will not do anything for us.”

Business owners in the city and on the Northside have concerns about the state’s plans for their communities as well. While they primarily support the community grid option, which they said will hopefully breathe new life into the city’s economy, they are concerned about the “common features” of both plans.

These features include widening I-81 north of Interstate 690, realigning Butternut Street bridge to connect with Franklin Square, adding a new connection between I-81 and I-690 and changing three other important bridges that currently pass over I-81, according to the NYSDOT’s project scoping report.

These changes would most likely lead to the elimination of some roads, buildings and access points on the Northside.


George Angeloro, a fourth generation business and land owner on the Northside, and a member of the Northside Business Partnership’s board of directors, said he is particularly concerned about the realignment of the Butternut Street bridge. Currently, the bridge is a direct connection between downtown Syracuse and the Little Italy district of the Northside. The proposed changes would move it to connect with Genant Drive and Franklin Square rather than downtown.

While approximately 11,000 cars currently utilize the bridge per day, Angeloro said, traffic would decrease to about 1,500 cars per day if the bridge were moved. This could be detrimental to the community, Angeloro said.

“It will make it significantly harder for those who want to come to the Northside to make their way there,” Angeloro said.

Even though it might be easy to draw a line in the sand between the needs of the suburbs and the city, experts and locals have said that the two are intertwined. They said they see the future of metropolitan areas as a thriving city whose prosperity ripples out into the surrounding communities. For Dave Campbell, the owner of Davco Performance Automotive on the Northside, this means slowing down traffic and getting people and businesses to come back to the city.

“When you have a viable and vibrant downtown area, which it historically has been up until the last 20 years, it has historically been the … economic engine of the area,” Campbell said.

Currently, all of the options for I-81 are still on the table as Gov. Andrew Cuomo called for an independent review of available information, which should be completed by the summer.

Like the original construction of the interstate, the changes made next will have an impact for the next 50 or more years, said Evan Iacobucci, a Ph.D. student of planning and public policy at Rutgers University. He said while no single change could create a “utopia,” setting the tone for the future is what’s at stake currently in Syracuse.

Iacobucci, who has extensively studied similar infrastructure issues in Buffalo, New York, said he recognizes the division among business owners, but moving the region forward and out of extreme poverty may require some sacrifices.

“If we are going to have a more equitable society, something is going to have to change,” he said. “And it probably doesn’t mean that (suburban) people’s lives have to get worse.”

Graphics by Andy Mendes